Skip to main content

Welcome! Be sure to visit the NABC website as well.

Is a fed bear a dead bear?

Is a fed bear a dead bear?

Update March 12, 2010 - 8:44 PM CST

The tougher the debate, the more we explore in the updates.  In this case, the questioner assumed that if a bear is fed by someone it will generalize that all humans offer food and it will become a nuisance.

We’ve covered most of the questioner’s concerns as they apply to this study in previous updates, on, on, and in the research paper “Does diversionary feeding create nuisance bears and jeopardize public safety?”  Her questions are similar to our questions back in the early 1980’s before starting the present studies of feeding, habituation, and walking with wild bears.  If those concerns applied, we would not still be doing the studies now a quarter century later.

However, she introduced a new topic that we’re happy to address because it’s a source of confusion for many biologists—the difference between feeding bears in campgrounds (and along roadsides) and feeding bears in rural communities.   The confusion is many layered and involves additional confusion about habituation and about interpreting harmless nervous bluster.   The questioner is right that feeding bears is not appropriate in campgrounds or along roadsides.   Feeding in those situations leads bears into trouble.

The campground situation

Bears that receive food in campgrounds or as roadside panhandlers see crowds of people or streams of vehicles that change daily.   They tend to generalize people or vehicles as harmless sources of food.  Many campers enjoy seeing the bears and feeding them.  Other campers are afraid.   Many officials are afraid, too—afraid of liability if they don’t take tough action to get rid of any bear that shows bluster or that appears to have lost fear of people.   Officials who lack close-up experience with bears may misinterpret harmless nervous bluster as serious threats and end up shooting such bears to protect public safety.  They also shoot calm bears that ignore people and show no bluster, rationalizing that any bear that has lost some of its fear of people is likely to attack.

The questioner is right that bears in campgrounds can learn to approach people in general in areas where they expect to see people and where they have been fed.  They also can learn to sit along stretches of road where motorists throw them food.  However, nearly all of these bears, when approached back in the woods, run away.

Note that we never say ‘all’ or ‘never’ because bears have individual personalities and any given behavior falls in a bell-shaped curve with the odd bear being the exception out in one of the tails.  It’s important not to over-generalize about bears.  A problem is that many people, including many biologists, tend to generalize from worst-case scenarios using bears that are out in one of the tails.  When this kind of thinking is applied to bear management it becomes management based on fear of liability rather than on solid science.

A bigger problem is that all too often there is no solid science when it comes to the bear-human interface.  The bear-human interface is one of the most important areas of bear management and one of the least studied areas of bear biology.  Many biologists think such studies are unnecessary because they think they already know the answers.   And preconceived notions tend to rely on selective memory rather than on a solid data base that can produce truly scientific conclusions.  The passion behind preconceived notions is no less adamant than in politics and religion.

Is a fed bear a dead bear?

Killings of bears in campgrounds led to the expression “A fed bear is a dead bear.”   It was made up by a couple campground managers who said it was the best way they could urge campers to keep a clean camp and refrain from feeding bears.   The slogan is thoughtlessly applied to rural communities and has become a mindless mantra for bear management across the continent.  There is no science behind it.  It rightly recognizes that food can lead bears into trouble in campgrounds.  However, it fails to recognize that food can also lead bears out of trouble in certain situations as we are finding in our study area and in the previous study area described in “Does diversionary feeding create nuisance bears and jeopardize public safety?”

Rural communities

In the rural community we are studying, a dozen or so households have been feeding bears for over 40 years.   The bears become accustomed (habituated) to seeing and trusting people in certain locations or situations.  They learn what to expect from each landowner who feeds them.

We have already discussed that these bears do not walk up to hunters and that they survive hunting seasons at a higher rate than other bears.  Do they, as the questioner asserts, approach people wherever they see them?  We have already discussed that to an extent but let’s give some examples.

Hunters tell us that well-fed bears that feed in people’s yards are actually more cautious when approaching hunters’ baits than are ‘hungry’ other bears.  This could further explain the higher survival of research bears over other bears.   The caution these well-fed bears show is probably more in regard to other bears that visit the hunters’ baits than about the hunter sitting quietly high in a tree wearing camouflage and covered with a scent to mask his human odor.

There are many stories of bears we accompany in the woods fleeing at the sight of a distant hiker.  In fact, we ourselves find we cannot approach the bears upwind without speaking and letting them know it’s us.

We remember a couple skeptical wildlife managers who believed the same as the questioner—that the bears would likely approach people for food out in the woods.  A 15-year-old bear that had visited feeding stations in the study area for most of her life was bedded in a valley nearby.  She was wearing a radio-collar, so we gave the telemetry receiver and directional antenna to them to try to approach her.  An hour later, they came back with a story of how they had quietly tried to join the bear, following her signal in big circles in the valley as the bear stayed ahead of them until she finally lined out over a hill and left.  They never saw her.

Perhaps the best example comes from an elderly couple who have walked forest trails nearly daily during the entire study.  Until the husband died a year ago, they walked 3-5 miles each day in the heart of the study area.  105 bears were documented using feeding stations in the study area during that time.  We asked them how many bear problems they had.  The wife said they only saw one bear in the woods in all that time and it posed no problem.

Similarly, bears are fed at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary about 75 miles away.  Over 80 different wild bears visit there each year and become thoroughly accustomed to seeing people in the bear-feeding area.  In the early days, until the mid 1990’s, there were no rules.  People could walk unsupervised among dozens of bears that sought food from the people.  For over 20 years, people were saying the place was an accident waiting to happen.  During that period, Lynn took many pictures of toddlers wandering among 500-pound bears, steadying themselves with a hand on a bear or reaching up to a bear’s mouth to offer it a doughnut.  The bears were thoroughly used to getting food from people.  Contrary to the questioner’s assertion, most of these bears were impossible to approach just a hundred yards back in the woods.  They expected to see people in the feeding area.  A person in the woods was a threat.  However, different bears have different personalities.  Some are quicker than others to learn to accept people in new situations.   Lynn persisted in gaining the trust of a few of them back in the woods.  The two biggest, 876-pound Duffy and 758-pound Brownie, turned out to be the most confident and the quickest to trust Lynn walking with them.  Both had calm, gentle, personalities.  Most of the others slipped away like any wild bear when Lynn tried to approach.

Little scientific work has been published on habituation in bears.  The word has been used in many publications, often incorrectly, but the only scientific paper we know of is the one by Steve Herrero, Tom Smith, Terry DeBruyn, Kerry Gunther, and Colleen Matt (2005) entitled “From the field: brown bear habituation to people—safety, risks, and benefits.”  It was published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin 33(1):362-373.  It showed that habituated brown bears were less likely to attack people on a “per encounter” basis but did not go into how location-specific and situation-specific habituation is.  As is usual where there is a dearth of science, there has been a lot of speculation about habituation and the effects of feeding bears and some of the speculation has formed the basis of bear management—to the detriment to bears.  There is a need for clear scientific thinking in most areas of the bear-human interface.

We thank you again for your contributions and help.

—Lynn  Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, North American Bear Center

Share this update: